TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – It is Iran’s version of “Schindler’s List,” a miniseries that tells the tale of an Iranian diplomat in Paris who helps Jews escape the Holocaust — and viewers across the country are riveted.
That’s surprising enough in a country where hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has questioned whether the Holocaust even took place. What’s more surprising is that government media produced the series, and is airing it on state-run television.
The Holocaust is rarely mentioned in state media in Iran, school textbooks don’t discuss it and Iranians have little information about it.
Yet the series titled “Zero Degree Turn” is clearly sympathetic to the Jews’ plight during World War II. It shows men, women and children with yellow stars on their clothes being taken forcibly out of their homes and loaded into trucks by Nazi soldiers.
“Where are they taking them?” the horrified hero, a young Iranian diplomat who works at the Iranian Embassy in Paris, asks someone in a crowd of onlookers.
“The Fascists are taking the Jews to the concentration camps,” the man says. The hero, named Habib Parsa, then begins giving Iranian passports to Jews to allow them to flee occupied France to then-Palestine.
Though the Habib character is fictional, it is based on a true story of diplomats in the Iranian Embassy in Paris in the 1940s who gave out about 500 Iranian passports for Jews to use to escape.
The show’s appearance now may reflect an attempt by Iran’s leadership to moderate its image as anti-Semitic and to underline a distinction that Iranian officials often make — that their conflict is with Israel, not with the Jewish people.
About 25,000 Jews live in Iran, the largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel. They have one representative in parliament, which is run mostly by Islamic clerics.
The series could not have aired without being condoned by Iran’s clerical leadership. The state broadcaster is under the control of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, who has final say in all matters inside Iran.
Moderate conservatives have been gaining ground in Iran, where there is increasing discontent with the ruling hardliners over rising tensions with the West, a worsening economy and price hikes in basic commodities.
The government even allowed the series to break another taboo in Iran: For the first time, many actresses appear without the state-mandated Islamic dress code. The producers wanted to realistically portray 1940s Paris, and thus avoided the headscarves and head-to-foot robes that all women must normally wear on Iranian TV.
Ahmadinejad sparked widespread outrage in 2005 when he made comments casting doubt on the Holocaust and saying the state of Israel should be “wiped from the map.” His government organized a conference of Holocaust deniers and skeptics from around the world in December.
But the series has won support even from hardliners. Some argue that it links the Holocaust with Israel’s creation, thus boosting an argument by Ahmadinejad that if the Nazi killing of Jews did take place, the Palestinians who then lived in Palestine should not have had to pay the price for it by the creation of Israel after the war.
“The series differentiates between Jews and Zionism. The ground for forming Israel is prepared when Hitler’s army puts pressure on activist Jews. In this sense, it considers Nazism parallel to Zionism,” the hard-line newspaper Keyhan said.
However, if the series does aim to make that point, it has not done so overtly.
State media have said the series, which began in April, is popular. It has been a revelation for some Iranians and has pulled them away from more popular satellite channels, which are banned but which many watch anyway on illegal dishes. The fare on state TV is usually dry.
“Once, I wept when I learned through the film what a dreadful destiny the small nation had during the world war in the heart of so-called civilized Europe,” said Mahboubeh Rahamati, a Tehran bank teller.
Kazem Gharibi said he watches the series every Monday on a TV in his grocery store.
“Through this film, I understood that Jews had a hard time in the war — helpless and desperate, as we were when Iraq imposed war on us,” he said, referring to the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
The series began with a love story between Habib, the embassy employee, and a French Jew, Sara Stroke, in the early 1940s. Viewers say the love story pulls them in as much as the history.
After Paris is occupied by the Nazis, Habib decides to forge Iranian passports for many French Jews to save them from the Holocaust — starting with Sara and her family. The German government accepts his embassy’s claim that the passport holders are from an Iranian tribe and lets them leave France.
Habib is imprisoned by the Nazis for espionage after his forgeries are discovered. He then is released and returns to Tehran, where he is jailed again for forging passports.
Eight episodes remain in the series, and viewers drawn by the love story are on edge as they await the finish.
“I have watched the series from the beginning,” said Sedigheh Karandish, a housewife and mother of two. “It’s pulling me in to see what these two people do at the end. Hopefully, it will be a happy ending.”